A Look Back at His Tragic Passing and Legal Battle Over His Estate Decades Later? How Did Bob Ross Die

With his signature hair and gentle demeanor, painter Bob Ross is one of the most recognizable faces of the 1980s

Published Time: 04.07.2024 - 16:31:09 Modified Time: 04.07.2024 - 16:31:09

With his signature hair and gentle demeanor, painter Bob Ross is one of the most recognizable faces of the 1980s. But after spending over a decade teaching audiences across the globe how to paint on television, he died at just 52 years old.

Ross died of complications from lymphoma on July 4, 1995. His hit public-access art instruction show, The Joy of Painting, had ended a little over a year prior, after airing a total of 403 episodes. Famous for his calming voice and his way of reframing mistakes as “happy little accidents,” he taught viewers how to paint landscapes.

In a 1988 episode of The Joy of Painting, Ross recalled a fan letter he received: "I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, 'Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.' That's for sure. That's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news."

Behind the scenes, however, Ross was locked in a legal battle with his business partners Annette and Walt Kowalski over Bob Ross Inc., which had control of his likeness and work. In 1985, Ross, his wife Jane and the Kowalskis formed Bob Ross Inc., with each person an equal shareholder in the company. When Jane died in 1992, her shares were equally distributed among the three, making Ross a minority shareholder in the company bearing his name.

Before Ross died in 1995, he amended his will to leave the intellectual property rights over his image and likeness to his son Steve Ross and half-brother Jimmie Cox — but the Kowalskis were eventually given full control of the company after countering the action and settling with Cox.

While Steve later fought a legal battle against the Kowalskis' daughter Joan, who took over Bob Ross Inc. after her parents retired in 2012, he lost the case. Ross' journey to fame and the ongoing legal fights after his death were the subjects of the 2021 Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.

Here’s everything to know about Bob Ross’ untimely death, the battle over his estate and the legacy he left behind.

Ross died of complications from lymphoma at just 52 years old. Ross had been a lifelong smoker, and he was diagnosed with the disease just weeks after his second wife, Jane, also di -

ed of cancer in 1992. In his Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, a friend speculated that prolonged exposure to paint thinner might have contributed to his illness, but Ross never spoke publicly about his health.

Ross died on July 4, 1995, just over a year after The Joy of Painting’s final episode aired on May 17, 1994.

Ross died in Orlando, Fla.

At the time of his death, Ross was only 52 years old.

Ross had been a fixture on public television for 11 years and 31 seasons of his show, filming 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting before he retired to focus on his health. He had filmed for nearly two years after his cancer diagnosis.

"He combined television with hypnosis and craft," singer Lady Kier told PEOPLE in 1995. "You couldn't help noticing him. He became part of the pop mainstream. His nice little clouds were my favorites."

After Ross died, his former business partners Annette and Walt Kowalski eventually gained full control over his likeness and show, despite Ross leaving the rights to his son Steve and his half-brother Jimmie Cox in his will and testament.

"Annette called me two days after my dad died,” Steve claimed to The Daily Beast in 2021. “And she said, 'I want you to listen to me carefully. ... Any Bob Ross art products, anything related to art or painting ... you can never ever make those, distribute those, create a business around those — nothing. ... You cannot put the Ross name on a painting- or art-related product, period — ever — for the rest of your life.' "

While Steve later sued the Kowalskis for the rights to his father's name and likeness, he lost the legal battle.

Nearly 30 years after his death, Ross remains a fixture in the popular consciousness. Fans wear shirts with his image, and he’s been mentioned in pop culture phenomena like Deadpool. In 2020, The Joy of Painting became available to stream on YouTube.

His show also inspired the 2023 film Paint, in which Owen Wilson plays a popular fictional painter who closely resembles Ross — until another artist comes along and challenges his status as host of the no. 1 public-access painting show.

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